Friday, February 4, 2011

A Little Story

My father owned a couple of buildings in the east-end. Three-storey walk-ups. One fall Sunday he took me with him to inspect the building. I was about seven years old. As we approached the first building, we could see a lot of commotion in front. I saw a woman and her three children on the sidewalk. The youngest was merely a toddler, holding on to the mother's hand and bawling. The middle one was about my age, also weeping piteously. The oldest was about twelve, and he (unencumbered by the youngsters) was attempting to lead the charge as he and his mother tried to climb the front steps and enter the building. Both of them were being slapped down by a man I recognized as the building's superintendent.

"What's going on?" I asked. My father remained silent. The superintendent was slapping both the boy and the mother quite hard at times, shoving them backwards down the steps. The glass doors of the front alcove would open frequently and some young, rough-looking men would come out and throw some item belonging to the family (furniture, clothes, family heirlooms, etc., ) onto the sidewalk, sometimes almost hitting the smaller children.

"We should stop this!" I shouted.

My father swallowed. "It's not always as simple as all that." he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked a little hysterically.

"I'm as upset about this as you are." my father answered almost without emotion. I couldn't process my father's indifference to the family's agony while watching them suffer at the same time. Then, the superintendent slapped the boy hard enough that teeth and blood flew from his mouth. He then gave the boy a shove with both hands and sent him sprawling to the street where he banged his skull hard onto the sidewalk.

"Stop this!" I shrieked. My father continued to hesitate. I watched the mother frantically try to throw herself down to her fallen son while still holding on to her little ones. The superintendent began roaring terrible insults at the woman. More furniture, dresser-drawers filled with clothes, and such were still being thrown carelessly at them by the workmen. I remember a lamp smashing right beside the toddler, and then my eyes filled with tears. I was only seven. Apparently I started wailing as loud as the dispossessed children on the street.

Later on, my mother tried to explain things to me. Apparently that family was two months late with the rent. Of course, they weren't alone among my father's tenants. This was in the days before rent control and my father had been raising the rents considerably with some frequency at that time. The real problem was that the woman and her husband had been forming a tenants' rights group and they'd been calling all sorts of newspapers and the local tv news, city inspectors, everyone, pointing out problems with the buildings. This was bad enough for my father, but the couple were reaching out to distressed tenants in nearby buildings, stirring up trouble for other landlords.

"They might even be communists!" my mother hissed.

"But why did we have to be so mean to them?" I asked her.

"Don't you like living the way you do? What do you think would happen if all these poor people were able to control the cost of renting? Do you think we'd be able to afford to live in a house like this?" In my simple, childish morality, I thought that it would be fine if we lived in a smaller house, if it meant we didn't have to throw people out on the street, but I kept my thoughts to myself.

"Besides. Those people don't know the first thing about how much it costs to run those buildings. Let them set the rent and pretty soon we'd have to give the building back to the bank! Their problem is that they have children before they can afford to look after themselves. They quit school, get married, and take the only jobs that hire uneducated people. Then they have kids they can't afford and then they become communists and blame everybody else for their problems."

My father spoke to me later that day. "I fired Mr. Mubarak." he said in a gentle voice.


"Mr. Mubarak. He's the man who runs that building. Who was being mean to the woman and her children." he answered.


"Yes. He let things get out of hand. He shouldn't have acted that way to them. I'm sorry."

"Did you let that family move back in?" I asked.

My father sighed. "Son." He sighed again. "No. I can't let them move back in. They can't afford to live there and I can't afford to let them live there for free."

I must have looked very upset.

"They're all right. I had some of my men give them a ride to her mother's house. We also carried their furniture for them, in one of our trucks. That's the best I can do I'm afraid. But Mr. Mubarak should not have treated them the way he did. I thought he was a good superintendent. It's a tough job. Sometimes tenants don't want to pay their rent and they get very angry. He had to be very brave sometimes. But other times, he was mean, like you saw today. And I won't have that. Anyway, I got someone new, and I hope you never have to see anything like that ever again. I hope you're not too upset."

I didn't know what to say. I was upset. I was upset about what happened to that family. I was upset that my father took so long to do something about it. I was upset to have to hear so many sad things about the way the world looked and about my place in it. I just stared in front of me.

"Well, if you want to talk, just let me know." said my father, leaving the room.

[If you think calling the superintendent "Mr. Mubarak" ruins everything, lemme know.]


Scott MacNeil said...

Given present actions by some in power, I would say "Mubarak" is more than apt!

thwap said...

It's kinda like supposed to be a metaphor ...

Marky Mark said...

I wouldn't have figured it out without the name, so you got to keep it in for the linear thinkers. (In fact I still am wondering whether you're recounting a true childhood story but changed to name to come up with the metaphor!)

thwap said...

Marky Mark,

It's entirely fictional. My folks were postal workers.

The father is the US president (obviously).

The mother is the US media/propaganda system.

The superintendent is the 3rd-World puppet-dictator.

The child is the US citizen who still believes in the system.